How much mileage can a play get from a one-joke premise? Quite a bit, judging from the audience response at the world-premiere run of “Leading Ladies,” at Houston’s Alley Theater. Production of the latest comic concoction from Ken Ludwig (“Lend Me a Tenor,” “Moon Over Buffalo”) seems very much a work in progress, undercut by a sluggish start and fizzling finale. But savvy staging by Ludwig and exuberant efforts by strong cast wring maximum laughs from the fitfully funny farrago about underemployed actors who moonlight as cross-dressing con men.
Opening scene introduces two second-rate Brit thespians — grandiloquent Leo (Brent Barrett) and malleable Jack (Christopher Duva) — as they present a program of Shakespearean excerpts on a not-so-grand tour of rural Pennsylvania in 1952.
After a poorly received performance at a Moose Lodge (unfortunately not nearly as zany as it should be), Leo is driven to desperate measures. When he learns that a fatally ill, fabulously wealthy woman in a nearby hamlet is seeking two long-lost relatives, he browbeats Jack into collaborating in a plot to pose as the dying dowager’s heirs.
Unfortunately, the prodigal relatives happen to be — yes, you guessed it! — women. But this minor detail is easily finessed. Leo and Jack simply dip into their costume trunk, artfully apply wigs and makeup and pass themselves off as Maxine and Stephanie, respectively.
Recovering slowly but surely after dawdling exposition, the Alley production gradually accelerates comic momentum even as it covers familiar ground. To his credit, Ludwig frankly acknowledges obvious inspirations with dialogue that references “Charlie’s Aunt” and other men-in-drag chestnuts. (To his debit, he also has a character refer to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” four years before that movie’s release.) Most wittily playful bits involve pointed allusions to “Twelfth Night,” complete with gender-bending disguises, overheard conversations, misrouted notes and other classic Shakespearean tropes.
Arriving at the posh mansion of ailing yet feisty Florence (Jane Connell), whose proximity to death may be more apparent than real, the two disguised leads repeatedly risk exposure while inconveniently attracted to attractive women. Leo/Maxine is enchanted by Meg (Erin Dilly), Florence’s stagestruck niece, who’s unaccountably engaged to a wet-blanket minister (Mark Jacoby) with his own designs on the old woman’s $3 million fortune.
Meanwhile, Jack/Stephanie is drawn to Audrey (Lacey Kohl), a delightfully daffy autodidact who’s kinda-sorta involved with the amiably clueless son (Tim McGeever) of Florence’s unreliable doctor (Dan Lauria).
Subtlety is in short supply throughout Ludwig’s spirited staging. But never mind: There is ample amusement to be gleaned from the overstated antics of the ensemble cast. Among the funniest farceurs: Duva, who often suggests a scrambled-DNA hybrid of Harpo Marx and Gene Wilder; Kohl, who recalls a young Goldie Hawn with her ditzy shenanigans; and Connell, a seasoned vet who steals every scene with crafty flashes of sarcasm.
As the players scamper across Neil Patel’s aptly luxurious, period-flavored mansion set, Ludwig maintains a pleasingly frenetic tempo until just a few minutes short of the very end, which conspicuously lacks a satisfying curtain line. The stage business is especially inspired during a scene in which Leo and Jack doff their disguises and confer with each other, unaware that Audrey and Meg are watching silently, and reacting hilariously, on an upstairs landing.
Regardless of critical response to any future New York productions, look for “Leading Ladies” to become a staple of summer stock and community theaters. And, mind you, that’s meant as a compliment.